In praise of our mother, Mary McGinty

With unending love

Beloved family.  You were the center of her loving life and that of Dad as well.  All the pictures I have been pulling out and seeing you share these days – they all show her with you.  With you grandsons and granddaughters as little ones.  She is feeding you, or talking to you, or just holding you.  But not “just.”  She is holding you in her arms, and so obviously holding you in her heart above all.  

I have been thinking for months – crazy I know – that I have known her since she was 27 years old.  27! That was her age when her body began the miraculous and loving work of making mine.  And she did the same in succeeding years for our brother Michael, and for Joe, Jim, Tom, Terry, and Ann.  She was young, and farm-girl-strong from the west of Ireland.  She would arm-wrestle men in the Hibernian Club in Lynn and beat them.  They told me themselves years later.  

Some of my first memories are the image of Mom moving through the house at 67 Eastern Avenue with me as a baby bouncing on her hip, while with the other arm she was cleaning the house, and all through it singing songs from her native land.  She was – then and through the vast majority of her days – beautifully, wonderfully, lovingly unstoppable.  

Eighty-seven years and more after striding through the house in joint mothering/cleaning mode and in song, she was sitting in a wheelchair in the foyer of the Jeanne Jugan Residence in Somerville, singing aloud, eyes closed and a smile on her lips, at the merest suggestion of a beloved old tune.  She was, right from her first day – Saint Patrick’s feast on March 17 in 1929, until her last earthly day, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12 of 2020 –  the same Mary.  The very same.  And that, for us, will remain as long as we live one of the best blessings of our lives.  To that I can give witness. And so can you.

All of us gathered in this majestic church today, and all our family have our own witness to give for Mom, Auntie Mary, Nana, Mimi.  Many of those praying with us over the internet have theirs as well.  I pray that we will continue to tell the story as long as we have life and breath.  Mom’s is a story worth telling.  In herself, she is a story worth telling, worth never forgetting, not even a day of her life.  

Between those early days at 67 Eastern Avenue to those latter days at 186 Highland Avenue, how much happened?  To tell it all would take an army of voices and weeks of telling.  How many lunches made and kids readied for school?  How many times getting us to the dentist, sacrificing her own natural teeth for ours?  How many nights worried about kids out late or on the road or in a plane? How many baseball games and how many hockey practices?  Just these last years she has carried on physically through a broken hip, two fractures of her lower spine, a broken pelvis, massive infections, and two incursions at last of Covid-19.  Whenever she fell, whenever she went down, she got up again.  Whatever it took.  And when she got up, she said, “Get me out of here!  Let’s go out to lunch.  Let’s go for a ride.  Let’s go shopping.”  Her spirit did not stop.  Even when her body fell, her spirit was indomitable, lifting her up again and again, as recently as a week ago today. 

Over these recent days I have begun to realize that deep within my heart I have been searching for years for a way to live through these days when they would come.  I’ve realized now that I never found such a way, even in my imagination.  I simply could not imagine, after all of life thus far:  after all the changes and moves, after Dad’s death more than twenty years ago, after all Mom’s faithfulness and unfailing honesty; after all the thousands of meals and innumerable loads of laundry; after all the worries when we were little over money, after the summer vacations in our early years in New Hampshire, where we jumped into lakes and all her work came with her; after all the days and hours and minutes of life that came between all those photos we have now to share; after all the conversations each of us has had with her on our own, talks filled with love and wisdom whose shining light has only grown brighter as we recall them in the time since – after all of that and all the more I fail to mention, how can we imagine this changed future?  

The certainty of God’s love for Mom and her place in the Kingdom of God; her reunion with Nonie and her brothers, and her neighbors from growing-up days in Mayo; Jack McGinty coming to meet her again (however that happens in the fullness of life) and their dancing again, this time to music without end: these are all cause for joy and exultation. They are cause for acclaiming her making life her own, and now being embraced by the One who is the source of all life. Even Leo her longtime cat chose last Monday to go on from this world, after his own 20 years, perhaps to greet her in a renewed life.

With all that true cause for joy, the question of how to live in a world without her is the source of my sorrow and a fountain of tears.  This has to be acknowledged as well.  Otherwise, the gifts given Mom now in God’s presence will not reveal their full glory.  To me, this grief feels like being dissected, pulled apart, wrenched.  And discovering in the process that every part of me – where the joints and muscles touch, where the memories and the hopes strain toward one another, where hope and desolation meet, every cell and every part of a cell bears the mark of her love.  So it should be of course.  From Dad and Mom, we of the next generations take our DNA, and so much more.

True tales of old days, at the beginning of their life together, tell the story like prophets of who Mom and Dad have been, separately and especially together.  Our youngest brother Terry told me the other night that I had better start sharing the things that I know from long ago.  I’m not sure how much there is, but here are two that speak powerfully.

I was only between 3 and 4 years old, Joe was a little baby, when they took into the house and cared for Mrs. Hannan, the elderly mother of Dad’s cousin John.  She had to be about 90 and had a lot of physical needs.  Here they were with a toddler and an infant, and Dad having to be out to work every day, and Mom agreed to take in this old woman into her care.  I remember Mrs. Hannan.  She was fascinating in my young eyes.  Just last year, with Mom, we found her grave at Saint Joseph’s Cemetery in Lynn.  I was astounded to see that Mrs. Hannan was born as the Civil War was ending.  She was a stranger, and your mother and mine took her in and took her as her own.

Mimi/Mom did this only a decade or so after she had taken up the hard work at the age of 15 or 16 at home in Ireland, of becoming the acting mother of her sister and brothers after the early death of her own dear mother Margaret, by cancer.  She stepped up when it was her or no one, and loved them to life and to maturity.  

And only a few years after Mrs. Hannan had left us, Mom and Dad took in a 6-month old baby boy whose parents were unable for some reason to care for him at that time.  They fostered him while their own family was growing.  The little guy stayed with us about half a year until his family took him back.  We wanted him to stay, and Mom cried when he left her arms.  Even with all the others for whom she was making life possible, her love expanded to meet the need.  And that was her story.

I have been thinking through all the years at 186 Highland Avenue (her 7th year began there on December 5th) about the greatness of the heart of this woman we have been so blessed to call our own.  I finally saw that greatness, in very recent months, as painfully we could not see her at all for months at a time. I saw the simple and exquisitely beautiful truth that everything she did was motivated by love.  Always and everywhere.  Caring for her siblings, for Mrs Hannan, for that baby boy whose name I cannot recall, for us, for Dad, for her sister Nonie after she too came to this country.  All for love.  And hers was not a soft, sentimental idea of love. Hers is the love that invites and even always to work for the good of the other person. Hers is a clear reflection of Jesus’ love all the way to the cross.  When she would threaten you to eat what she had cooked for supper (Joe!), when she would clean the house until it shook with fear, when she and Nonie would dance like a whirlwind at house parties, when she and Dad would make their weekly pilgrimage to Tai Hong for Chinese food, when she would read aloud the letters from sister-in-law Maisie in Mayo (who died a year to the day before Mom), when she and I would drive somewhere together and have some of our deepest talks looking straight ahead through the windshield instead of at each other because Irish people do things like that and because if I looked at her and saw the sincerity and the care in her eyes, I would start to cry – all this she did as the work of love.  When she was gentle, when she threatened you, when she hugged you and when she warned you – all of it for the sake of love.  

Sometime in the fairly early 90’s I think, Dad and I took a road trip to visit Tom and Deb and the girls when they were in Tennessee.  Just before we left, Mom and Dad had a bit of a tiff.  She wouldn’t even say goodbye to him as we left.  Every day of our road trip there would be one call on the cellphone (early version, as big as a Jerusalem Bible).  I would talk with her as to how things were at home.  Dad would motion to give him the phone.  He would put it to his ear and say, without preliminaries, “Do you miss me yet?”  And I could hear, every day, the “no!”all the way from the driver’s seat.  By the time we got back, all was well.  This was corrective love.  But it too was love.

I heard Mom say a few times through the years what has to be a theological heresy, but one which God would understand I think.  She would say, “May God love you as much as I do.”  May God love you as much as I do!  You can only say that if God is in fact loving through you each and every day. That got translated in recent years into other terms as age took its toll and she, with all the grace she could muster, let go and let go and let go of things that used to be easy that no longer could be managed, of capabilities and capacities that had been second nature for most of life, but no more.  Now she would say, from her travel chair or walker or wheelchair or bed, “What would I do without you?”  And I would answer, “About the same.”  And she would roar in laughing response: “No!” That question too springs out of the selfsame root of ongoing, boundless, borderless, motherly love.

Many of us were not able to see her face to face near the end.  That is one part of the heritage of this scourge of a pandemic.  I will never know why, but I was blessed to be with her the morning of the final day of her life in this world. In some way, representing your love. She was weak and barely responsive, but she would rally round.  I think of those minutes now and I see all the places that have been the “there” where we could be sure to find Mom over all our days.  Right in the house with us, so faithfully, when we were growing up.  At home in Hudson after she suffered the loss of Dad.  On the phone at any time.  And finally, nearby here in Somerville.  Part of the pain of these days, at least for me, is asking, “Now, and in the days to come, where can I find her now?”  The answer, of course, is in God.  Wherever God is.  And as the catechism taught, that wherever is everywhere.  And it is most of all “here.”  By our common baptism, by our lives of shared experiences, by all she taught us as she lived, by our deep and never-dying love, she is always “here.”  In your heart.  It beats, in ways we cannot explain, with her love.

A couple of weeks ago on a video call, which Mom ended by putting her headphones down in a certain way and silencing me (!), I asked her what she would want for Christmas.  In recent years, many years, to that question she has responded with variations of “Nothing, what do I not have that I need?”  This time was different, in a way that caught my attention.  “Mom,” I asked, “what do you want for Christmas this year?” She looked at me and said simply, after some hesitation, “I’ll wait.”  I’ll wait.  And the waiting is over.  The gift is given.  The gift toward which every life archs.  I picture Mom in the company of Mary and Joseph and the Baby on that first Christmas. Surrounded by farm animals she might have known as she grew up in the West of Ireland.  I see her asking if she can, and then taking and holding Jesus – gently, perfectly, as she knew so well how to do.  As most of us here in this place today were held in her arms in just that way.  That’s the gift that is Mom’s this Christmas.  She waited.  And she need not wait any more.

She was born under the name of Saint Patrick in his own land.  She died in the land she adopted, early on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of the Americas. The heart of the Guadalupe story is Juan Diego, a poor Mexican, who four times in December 1531 experienced a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  On December 12, in the very early hours of the morning, before light, the same day our Mom would leave this world 488 years later, Juan was supposed to go and meet Jesus’ mom again, but he got word that his uncle was dying.  He took a circuitous route to try to avoid the area where Mary might be.  Not surprisingly, she found him anyway, and not surprisingly, she already knew his pain, his dilemma and his sorrow.  And Mary, Mary, Mary spoke these words to Juan Diego in his time of anxiety and pain.  She said to him,

“¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre? Am I not here, I who am your mother?”

How can those words, spoken on that day at that hour, not be meant for us? How can those words of the one Mary, saved and protected over centuries, not be to you and me today the words of our own Mary.  

Jesus’ mom continued that day to Juan Diego:

“Are you not safe in the shadow of my protection? Am I not the source of your life and your happiness? Am I not holding you in my lap, wrapped in my arms? What else can you possibly need? Do not be upset or distressed.”

Mom, our loving mom, continue to hold that infant Jesus.  Let him represent all of us, and through him let us experience your continuing care.  Sing to him, croon to him, any Irish lullaby you choose.  Maybe “a mother’s love is a blessing” or “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra.” I can hear your sweet voice singing it now.  In terms of time and eternity, we will join you just a few verses along.  And we will sing together without end.

On Friday morning in her room, I asked you Mom, turning the tables,”What would I do without you?”  Despite your weakness, despite all, you responded clearly: “The same.” You remembered.  And so will we, while there is breath in us.  You know this, our extraordinary Mary of love, but it is worth saying again and again . . . we will love you always.  Always.  Just as you have loved us.

Given at Mom’s funeral at Gate of Heaven Church, South Boston| Wednesday, December 16, 2020

3 thoughts on “In praise of our mother, Mary McGinty

  1. Dear John, I’m so sorry to learn of your mother’s death. I extend my deepest condolences to you and your whole family. I wept my way through this remarkable and very Irish tribute. Thank you so much for sharing it. I’m very sad to have missed Mary’s funeral; it must have been quite a send off. From Saint Patrick to Our Lady of Guadalupe, it doesn’t get any better than that. May God rest your mother’s beautiful soul and comfort you and the whole McGinty family in the days and months ahead.

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